Danielle Paquette writes about gender, policy and economics for The Washington Post.
In the summer of 1997, Kevin Hazzard was leading a Jet Ski tour when he heard two riders collide. Thud. He zipped toward the wreckage, unsure of what to expect, and found the riders floating in red water. One looked surprised. The other was missing his mouth.
Hazzard, then a teenager, had never witnessed such gore. He didn’t stay calm. He didn’t swiftly summon help. He did, instead, what bystanders are asked not to do in an emergency: He panicked.
“A Thousand Naked Strangers,” his memoir of 10 years as a paramedic in accident-prone Atlanta, is a wild, winding ride toward redemption. The author makes up for his inaction that day. He faces eyeball-eating maggots; an elbow nailed to a plaster wall; skull fragments beneath his tennis shoes; the jagged, crimson smile of a man whose face just met a chainsaw; and a drugged-out patient with wandering hands: “Dude has grabbed my nuts.”
If these images make you queasy, don’t climb into his ambulance. Hazzard, a former reporter with a penchant for expletives, writes trauma how he sees it: up close, unvarnished, at warp speed. Think gonzo journalism meets emergency-room noir. He’s a reluctant voyeur of someone’s worst day, every day.
This coming-of-age story, equal parts earnest and irreverent, begins shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Hazzard, a graduate of the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, watches his college buddies deploy to Iraq. They’re off risking their lives, testing their manhood. He chose to follow his writing passion and became a journalist, often stuck in snoozy city council meetings, still haunted by the Jet Ski crash.
Hazzard complains to his wife, Sabrina, the book’s enduring voice of reason, who tells him to quit moping and go back to school. So, on a whim, he enrolls in emergency medical technician training, where he encounters the job’s first horror: the people who sign up to save your life. His classmates aren’t exactly answering a higher calling. They get off — perhaps literally — on Googling “dead bodies.”
“Disturbing as it may be,” Hazzard writes, “the raw truth is that often enough, the people showing up to your medical emergency do so because this was the only respectable job they could get with a GED and a clean driving record.”
Which leads us to his three categories of first responders: the Tourists (dispassionate observers), the Killers (lazy burnouts who may put a hand, rather than an oxygen mask, over an unconscious elderly man’s airways) and the True Believers (adrenaline junkies with savior complexes). Hazzard, new to the gig, suffers through a rotation of Tourist partners until he meets Chris, a True Believer in search of the Perfect Call. (Paramedic slang, by the way, is abundant here.)
“There’d have to be a few dead people on the scene for us to gawk at,” explains a quickly desensitized Hazzard, “and patients who would rapidly die of their injuries without immediate intervention, our intervention.”
What follows is a play-by-play of grisly calls, of prostitutes asking for his leftover plastic gloves, of cruising through stretches of a city that hasn’t yet experienced a young-urbanite takeover. Hazzard rides for Grady Memorial Hospital, the state’s largest medical center, which serves any Atlantan in peril. Crumbling projects still loom over downtown. Drug deals still transpire on the hoods of parked ambulances. Bodies decompose in abandoned buildings.
Not that Hazzard relies entirely on medical reflexes. Sometimes, he explains, the job brings ethical dilemmas. Like: Do I save the life of someone who stole another?
Take Charles, a man he met in the cramped fourth-floor offices of Atlanta’s homicide unit. He was under police questioning and needed stitches. The patient had otherworldly blue eyes, boosting his spooky aura. He sat rambling about angels and Abraham Lincoln. He’d split open his hands that day while stabbing his wife. Forty times. “And so there I was with a handful of bandages, staring into the blood-spattered face of a man who just slaughtered his wife.”
Hazzard mended his wounds, anyway.
His shift wasn’t always packed with such high drama. He had serious stretches of down time in his ambulance — and found creative ways to fill it: He once dared his partner to chug a whole bottle of mustard in one sitting. And here’s a question for contemplation, posed by an increasingly jaded Hazzard to his wife: Which car would you least like to be killed by? His answer: A Volkswagen Beetle, of course. One with a plastic daisy in the driver’s-side vase. How terrible to be mowed down by something so . . . cute.
These details seem trivial but offer powerful insight: Through tragedy, we must stay human. We must find reasons to laugh in the darkness.
Hazzard eventually mastered the art of remaining calm through disaster — but not without misadventure. His transformation from a fear-paralyzed teenager to an adult in control is as gripping as it is violent.
And there’s the lesson for anyone who’s itching to prove themselves. Do what scares you. Then keep doing it. “Salvation through repetition,” Hazzard writes. “This I can do because I have done it before — it’s half-prayer, half truth, a whisper in a hurricane of self doubt.”
By Kevin Hazzard
261 pp. $25